At first it's not easy to tell if David Shiner or Bill Irwin is the taller one. Both are of average height. Yet each has the magical ability to grow half a foot one minute and, in the next, to shrink into his suit without seeming to be seriously compacted. Ordinary men have feet of clay; these guys seem made of Silly Putty. That's just one of the talents that delights audiences at the Ambassador Theater, where "Fool Moon," their 1993 Broadway mime revue, opened its return engagement last night.
Of the two clowns, Mr. Shiner is actually the taller. He's also the more aggressive. He's the manic fellow who begins the performance by climbing around, over and frequently onto the people in the first row of the orchestra in a furious search for his seat. In the course of the evening he's the one who drags random ticket holders onto the stage to participate in sketches.
Mr. Irwin seems to be more gentlemanly. Unlike Mr. Shiner, for whom rudeness is a calling, he seldom makes a fuss. He would never steal a patron's mink coat or dump a box of popcorn over someone's head.
In a sketch in which Mr. Irwin appears as Harlequin, you might think that he's the more romantic. Then you suddenly realize that he's also playing the gentle Harlequin's nemesis, an evil sorcerer no taller than a fire hydrant. As soon as Harlequin disappears behind one side of a small curtain, the sorcerer beetles out from the other side in a complete change of costume. Faster than a speeding bullet and, heaven knows, far funnier.
The truth: Both men are wizards.
Though I missed "Fool Moon" during its first engagement, I have the impression that the new edition isn't much different. The show is difficult to describe in terms that have anything to do with other Broadway offerings. It has the spontaneity of street theater combined with the discipline of dance, with each man equipped with his own collection of singular special effects.
Pay attention to Mr. Irwin as he wrestles with a demonically possessed stand-up microphone and its dangerous coil of extension cord. The mike groans, screeches, howls and sings. As he tries to silence it, he becomes entangled in cord so that when the curtain behind him rises, he also soars aloft, head down, somehow attached to the curtain by the cord and his shoe.
"Fool Moon" is a harum-scarum two-man revue, as well as a brisk review of the art of mime, the circus, vaudeville and silent-film comedy. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Marcel Marceau are recalled at various times, not only because Mr. Shiner and Mr. Irwin never speak but also because of the delicate precision of their performances. The music is provided by the Red Clay Ramblers, a folksy, musically sophisticated five-man group at the left of the stage. When words are necessary, the Ramblers provide them.
The highlights of the show are two extended sketches in which selected members of the audience participate. In one, Mr. Shiner plays a Chaplinesque Lothario who takes his girlfriend (chosen from the audience) for a spin in his car and then to a fancy restaurant. Mr. Irwin, wearing Groucho Marx glasses to which a false nose is attached, appears uncharacteristically as a lascivious fellow, the maitre d'hotel who tries to move in on the girlfriend.
The second sketch has Mr. Shiner, playing the director of a silent movie, guiding four people from the audience in a tale of love, betrayal and excessive retribution. In both sketches, Mr. Shiner manages to be simultaneously inside the sketch and standing a little apart to orchestrate it. The comic effects are doubled. When one of his non-pro actresses improperly mimes the closing of a car door, he shows her how such sloppy acting can result in the door's falling off the car entirely.
At such moments, "Fool Moon" is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is witty. Except for the show's final tableau, Mr. Shiner and Mr. Irwin mostly avoid the sentimental conceits associated with mime. Each performer is always too exuberantly involved in whatever bizarre task is at hand to have time for syrupy introspection. Watch Mr. Shiner's skill when he nearly topples backward out of an Ambassador box to the stage below.
In such primal chaos, there can be bliss. When the two stars do a soft-shoe, the sentiment speaks for itself. Which is why "Fool Moon" is a Broadway show that should enchant children as well as the adults who accompany them.